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Say 'aaah'..... but be quick about it!

12:00am | & News

Do you feel rushed when you visit the doctor, like using the checkout at a discount superstore? Or do you feel your doctor is prepared to give you as much time as you need, to hear what you're saying and provide appropriate advice and treatment?

If it's the latter, you're probably one of the lucky ones. According to the British Medical Association – the doctors' union – patients are being put at risk through doctors having to carry out sometimes complex consultations in 10 minutes or less. It is calling for more funding to ease the "unsustainable pressure" on GPs from an increasing workload and staff shortages.

If these issues were properly addressed it would mean doctors being able to spend at least 15 minutes with each patient if necessary, says the BMA in its report on "Safe Working in General Practice".

In response, NHS England said there are no national limits restricting appointments to 10 minutes and it is up to doctors how much time they spend with each patient. However, the NHS Choices website advises patients to plan ahead for their appointment, stressing that GPS spend an average of eight to 10 minutes with each patient. 

Despite what NHS England says, it seems clear the reality for doctors in many busy and overstretched GP practices is that they are forced to limit appointments and feel under constant time pressure. It is frustrating for them, and for patients who describe an unsatisfactory "conveyor belt" experience.

The BMA's report is intended to stimulate discussion on the length of patient appointments and suggest a model which could be adopted across the UK. Dr Brian Balmer, chairman of the BMA's GPs' Committee, said an ageing population meant many patients had multiple conditions which took more time to treat. He said GPs should have no more than 25 consultations per day – about the same as in many other EU countries.

"The consultation time needs to increase to 15 minutes (per patient), with the government providing on its promised funding to make this work," said Dr Balmer, who works as a GP in Essex.

His stance is backed by independent health think tank The King's Fund, which says new investment is urgently needed to stop the General Practice element of the NHS from "falling apart". Its analysis has shown that many GPs are under huge pressure due to an increase in workload, understaffing and lack of investment. However, it also says GPs must be open to changes in the way they work, such as giving more advice by email or over the phone.

A related issue is the length of time which patients have to wait for an appointment. It is a regularly heard complaint that patients have to wait weeks for an appointment and then are rushed in and out within a few minutes. Again the BMA says that improved funding for General Practice, including incentives for newly qualified doctors to become GPs, would help address this.

While it is easy to imagine that things were always better in the past, some GP practices, especially in large towns and cities, have always been busy and pressed for time. And one downside of doctors being able to take their time was that appointments often ran very late.

For the BMA, patient safety is paramount, with Dr Balmer insisting that under the current system too many doctors are forced to truncate care and perform an "unsafe level of consultations". NHS England counters that it is significantly increasing investment, as set out in its five-year blueprint document "General Practice Forward View", published in April this year.

Will things improve? Only time will tell.

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